This March morning, I’m almost blinded by the sun reflected off the snow still piled deep in my backyard. The day started in the single digits, proving the groundhog was right when he ducked back into his burrow to dream of spring, a spring that was far, far away. Unlike the groundhog, we humans have had to shovel and brave both the temperature and the traffic. But spring is coming. I can taste it in the air.
Long ago, there was a March blizzard that left my neighborhood in the cold and dark. Our house was the exception. We still had a coal furnace and a wood stove, so we were snug and fed. Four generations lived in our house, and we couldn’t afford to make the switch to an oil furnace. We had a large square grate in the doorway between the dining room and living room that allowed the heat of the furnace to rise into the living part of the home, a cozy spot for a four year old to play with dolls or look at books.
When the unseasonal storm began, Grandmom, my great-grandmother, went out and gathered fresh snow in the spaghetti dish, a large painted-ceramic bowl. My surprise must have shown when she brought what belonged outside into the house. She shushed my questions with a smile and a quick, “’spett.” I didn’t have to wait long. She mixed the snow with vanilla and sugar, transferred a scoop to a smaller bowl, and lifted a spoon to her mouth. Grandmom closed her eyes and smiled. Next, she told me, “Mangia.” I tentatively took the spoon from her hand, dipped out a morsel, and put it on my tongue. The vanilla snow was sweet and cold and light, unlike anything I had ever tasted. The two of us finished eating the snow together as we watched the wind swirl the wall of flakes, filling the yard quickly.
We didn’t notice when the power went out, but soon neighbors were knocking at the door. They addressed Grandmom as “Madrina,” a form of respect that they seldom used. “Can we stay with you?” they asked humbly. She invited them to come out of the blizzard. The house filled with people who had laughed at our old-fashioned ways. Some brought food with them, the dinners they couldn’t cook on their modern electric ranges, and my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother melded the contributions and what we had in our cupboards into many meals because the storm lasted four days.
It was a week before the power returned, a week when our house almost burst at the seams. People slept on chairs, the sofa, the floor. Meals were served in shifts, but there was a place for everyone, and no one went hungry because my great-grandmother had filled shelves with the vegetables she had canned from her garden in the back yard, and she shared her bounty.
I can’t remember the pasta or the soups or the stews that we shared that week, but I can still taste the vanilla snow, even though my own attempts to make it have never succeeded.